My negative review of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Link: The Wise Man’s Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two

Review: I’m not famous and I have no friends in the industry yet, so I’m still allowed to write bad reviews.

I once blogged: “Overall, I’ll definitely have to read the next books in this trilogy, and perhaps even everything else Rothfuss ends up writing…”

I guess I spoke (well, blogged) too soon. This book had completely the opposite effect: I think I may never read anything by Rothfuss again. Even Rothfuss’s lyrical prose couldn’t save this reader from the dull tediousness of this bloated meandering attempt at storytelling.

And that’s my main annoyance with this book: the storytelling. Though, honestly, I’m not sure I’d even call it “storytelling” because so much of it seemed so arbitrary. I suppose it will work for readers who enjoy the fantastical ideas presented in each pointless “sidequest” digression, but when you don’t enjoy them, their arbitrariness only makes them that much worse. Not only do you not care about the pointless sidequests, but you can’t even take a breath and assure yourself that they’ll have some payoff connected to the main story.

Of course, in this volume, the “main story” was so thin, it was barely there at all. In the first book, the main character was out to find a mysterious group of people called the “Chandrian” who murdered his family. And while that book also featured some major pointless digressions, this book was almost nothing but pointless digressions. What seemed like the driving force of the first book was only given lip service in this sequel, with the main character merely asking, “Do you know anything about the Chandrian?” to new characters now and then. Or, worse, deciding it would be too dangerous to ask at all. It felt like he hardly cared about the Chandrian.

I assure you I have nothing against “episodic” stories, where the narrative seems to focus into distinguishable story arcs. But with this book, I missed any coherent connections between them. It was as if the author brushed aside any concern for the main story so that he could fill the world with random ideas he thought were interesting, with no regard to whether or not they contributed anything to each other, beyond the main character experiencing them.

For me, the worst episode was what I’d call “The Lethani Sidequest.” The main character rather arbitrarily decides to learn a mysterious fighting religion thing called the Lethani. It’s a bit like a Chinese martial art with a focus on something like qi. That is, it’s not just about what you do physically, it’s about your mindset and your worldview, your philosophy. It’s natural for an author to have fun imagining some profound other-worldly philosophy, so, excusing the pointlessness of the sidequest, it at least had potential.

Unfortunately, the secretive community that studies the Lethani made absolutely no natural sense.

Firstly, they had no facial expressions; they communicated their emotions with hand gestures. Sorry, that’s just stupid. It would be one thing if they made it a point to train themselves to not use facial expressions, and maybe that’s what the author was going for, but why then reveal them with hand gestures? Facial expressions are not a cultural phenomenon; there are ingrained in our very nature. They’re innate. You don’t have to learn from experience to associate a smile with happiness.

Secondly, women are portrayed as naturally better at fighting than men, because men get angry too easily and cannot use their natural strength as effectively. That doesn’t make any sense. You might as well say men are naturally better at nurturing children because women get sad too easily.

Thirdly, music is socially forbidden because it’s considered extremely intimate. On the other hand, sexual relations are more open in this community than in any hippie free love commune. Completely unrealistic on both counts, and not even interesting as ideas.

Lastly, in the worst offense of logic, the community does not understand where babies come from at all. There are no such things as fathers because these people are somehow too stupid to connect certain actions with a woman’s pregnancy. Aside from making no sense psychologically (oh, look, he has your eyes, it must be magic!), this would bring about so much half-sibling and cousin incest (that is, inbreeding) through the generations, genetic defects would be common.

I suppose one could claim the narrator is simply being unreliable. Perhaps. But that’s no excuse for being plain unrealistic.

Throughout the story, these “episodes” start turning into tall tales as people pass stories around about our hero, embellishing them as they go, and our hero quickly starts becoming the stuff of legend. But this seems to happen far too easily, and our hero is conveniently always about to overhear the stories and over-appreciate his inflated reputation. I think what annoys me is the dramatic ease with which this happens. It requires no effort on the hero’s part, after all. It’s like trying to show how witty a character is by having others laugh at his otherwise lame jokes. That is, his stories hardly seem the stuff of legend, so what’s the motivation for other characters to inflate them to such a degree? Only that the author wants them to do so for the dramatic affect of it. It comes off as cheesy and unrealistic.

One grand mistake I think Rothfuss made with this series was putting much of it in first person, as a sort of story-within-a-story. First person makes the main character feel too much like another person. This works well for a lot of stories, but when the hero is your sort of good-looking, good-at-everything, wise-and-witty-and-cunning all-around-awesome guy, he comes off as ridiculously pretentious. That said, I do think Rothfuss handled it better in this volume than in the last, but it’s still a major weakness. Certain elements, such as the overly-easy legend spreading, might have worked better if readers were able to place themselves into the character’s shoes more easily.

I’ll admit I still want to know how the story ends. I want to know if the main character finds the Chandrian and has his revenge. And I want to know what Rothfuss has in store for the meta-story, the short story taking place between the narrator’s telling of the main story.

But do I want to know badly enough to endure another thousand pages of sidequests, digressions, unrealistic cultures, and arbitrary philosophical expositions?

Nope. I don’t think so. I’ll settle for a summary.

In the meantime, my copy of The Wise Man’s Fear receives the honor of being the first book I bought new to be weeded from my personal library. Off to a used bookstore it will go. No sense in holding on to this.

(It has my property stamp in it, so when I get famous, it will be a collector’s item. Let me know if you want it for $50. That’s a bargain!)

Quotes from Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe

Lately I’ve been reading Gene Wolfe’s book Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’, which is comprised of the first two volumes of his tetralogy The Book of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator).

I’m still reading, but here are a few excerpts I thought were interesting:

Foundational contradiction

From page 57:

“When I am free,” she said, “I shall found my own sect.  I will tell everyone that its wisdom was revealed to me during my sojourn among the torturers.  They’ll listen to that.”

I asked what her teachings would be.

“That there is no agathodaemon or afterlife.  That the mind is extinguished in death as in sleep, yet more so.”

“But who will you say revealed that to you?”

She shook her head, then rested her pointed chin upon one hand, a pose that showed off the graceful line of her neck admirably.  “I haven’t decided yet.  An angel of ice, perhaps.  Or a ghost.  Which do you think best?”

“Isn’t there a contradiction in that?”

“Precisely.”  Her voice was rich with the pleasure the question gave her.  “In that contradiction will reside the appeal of this new belief.  One can’t found a novel theology on Nothing, and nothing is so secure a foundation as a contradiction.  Look at the great success of the past—they say their deities are the masters of all the universes, and yet that they require grandmothers to defend them, as if they were children frightened by poultry.  Or that the authority that punishes no one while there exists a chance for reformation will punish everyone when there is no possibility anyone will become the better for it.”

The three meanings of everything

From pages 190 to 191:

“The brown book is a collection of the myths of the past, and it has a section listing all the keys of the universe—all the things people have said were The Secret after they had talked to mystagogues on far worlds or studied the popul vuh of the magicians, or fasted in the trunks of holy trees.  Thecla and I used to read them and talk about them, and one of them was that everything, whatever happens, has three meanings.  The first is its practical meaning, what the book calls, ‘the thing the plowman sees.’  The cow has taken a mouthful of grass, and it is real grass, and a real cow—that meaning is as important and as true as either of the others.  The second is the reflection of the world about it.  Every object is in contact with all others, and thus the wise can learn of the others by observing the first.  That might be called the soothsayers’ meaning, because it is the one such people use when they prophesy a fortunate meeting from the tracks of serpents or confirm the outcome of a love affair by putting the elector of one suit atop the patroness of another.”

“And the third meaning?” Dorcas asked.

“The third is the transsubstantial meaning.  Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will—which is the higher reality.”

“You’re saying that what we saw was a sign.”

I shook my head.  “The book is saying that everything is a sign.  The post of that fence is a sign, and so is the way the tree leans across it.  Some signs may betray the third meaning more readily than others.”

For perhaps a hundred paces we were both silent.  Then Dorcas said, “It seems to me that if what the Chatelaine Thecla’s book says is true, the people have everything backward.  We saw a great structure leap into the air fall to nothing, didn’t we?”

“I only saw it suspended over the city.  Did it leap?”

Dorcas nodded.  I could see the glimmer of her pale hair in the moonlight.  “It seems to me that what you call the third meaning is very clear.  But the second meaning is harder to find, and the first, which ought to be the easiest, is impossible.”

The highest form of governance

From pages 197 to 198:

“Severian.  Name for me the seven principles of governance.”

“Attachment to the person of the monarch.  Attachment to a bloodline or other sequence of succession.  Attachment to the royal state.  Attachment to a code legitimizing the governing state.  Attachment to the law only.  Attachment to a greater or lesser board of electors, as framers of the law.  Attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal.”

“Tolerable.  Of these, which is the earliest form, and which the highest?”

“The development is in the order given, Master,” I said.  “But I do not recall that you ever asked before which was highest.”

Master Malrubius leaned forward, his eyes burning brighter than the coals of the fire.  “Which is highest, Severian?”

“The last, Master?”

“You mean attachment to an abstraction conceived as including the body of electors, other bodies giving rise to them, and numerous other elements, largely ideal?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?”

“Answer me, Severian.”

“The first, if I have any.”

“To the person of the monarch?”

“Yes, because there is no succession.”

“The animal [a dog] that rests beside you now would die for you.  Of what kind is his attachment to you?”

“The first?”

There was no one there.  I sat up.  Malrubius and Triskele [the dog] had vanished, yet my side felt faintly warm.

Fun book!

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Link: 1Q84 (Vintage International)

Summary: When a writer accepts the task of ghost-editing a strange story for a writing competition, he ends up thrusting himself into a strange and mysterious world in which a religious cult wants him dead, the story’s strange original writer insists on living with him, and the story he rewrote which he thought was only a bizarre fantasy begins to reveal itself as true.  The reality of the world does not seem to be what he thought.

Thoughts: While the fairy-tale-like strangeness of the story kept me reading, and reading, and reading (for 900-something pages of weirdness), ultimately the story leaves a bunch of things unexplained or open-ended, leaving me as the reader rather unimpressed.  The story also features a bunch of really weird dirtiness which adds nothing to the story.  The author also likes to over-describe almost everything, adding in a bunch of details that don’t matter at all.  Things like: “The dog liked to eat spinach for some reason.” and “He woke up and drank a glass of milk.  Then he sat down at the table with a piece of toast and ate it while reading the newspaper.”  Blah, blah, blah, who cares?  I guess it’s a style decision that may work better for some readers than it does for me.  I’d prefer the story to move along.  I have a good enough imagination that if I want a bunch of useless details, I can make them up on my own, thank you very much.  Anyway, I’d like to check out more of the author’s work, because this book did feature some wonderful and poetic moments that really got me excited.  But the overall story failed to live up to anything special for me.

The Very Best of Tad Williams cover

I’m excited about this upcoming story collection from fantasy writer Tad Williams, The Very Best of Tad Williams to be released next year, March 2014.  Not only do I highly enjoy his writing, but this is some of the most beautiful cover art I’ve ever seen.  I’d love to get a print of it, and maybe I will at some point as it looks like the artist behind the masterpiece, Kerem Beyit, sells prints on his DeviantART account.  Beautiful work.

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson


Link: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive)

Summary: An enslaved soldier fights for freedom for himself and his friends.  An assassinated king’s brother works to unite his kingdom while trying to understand mysterious visions.  An artist sets out to steal a powerful magical object from a secretive but powerful scholar.  All the while, a dark evil is looming and growing in this popular 1200-page high fantasy, just the first installment of a series called The Stormlight Archives.

Thoughts: Whew.  Long book.  And I am slow reader, so that took me a good amount of time.  But I very much enjoyed it.  Sanderson’s writing is very clear and concise, so it’s an easy read, even if a long one.  It was always clear what was going on.  The pacing was rather slow for me; characters spent a great deal of time in their heads, and there were quite a few conversations that, while they helped to establish characters and their world, didn’t really seem to move the story along, at least not as quickly as they could have.  There were also some storylines and side-POVs that didn’t seem to contribute much at all.

A few critiques: In the story, our hero, Kaladin, is enslaved and decides to try to give hope to his enslaved comrades.  Most of them have resigned themselves to not caring about life, awaiting their inevitable meaningless deaths.  But by the end of the book, Kaladin has inspired them all!  Yay!  Not only that, but they all look to him as their faithful leader!  Yay!  Something always kind of feels false and manufactured to me when a large group of people are not only converted, but so willingly treat someone else like a commander to be obeyed, respected, and still treated as an equal.  It just seems too easy, too convenient.

Most of the humor didn’t work for me.  One of my particular pet peeves is when a character says something witty and “all the other characters laughed.”  Groan.  I prefer the sort of straight man comedy, where one character jokes and the other character fails to see the humor.  It’s not really what the character says that’s funny, it’s the contrast in attitude between the characters.  For example, look at the humor in Star Wars.  Look at the contrasting attitudes of the droids; one is a  worry-wort, while the other is confident.  Look at the contrasting attitudes of Han Solo and Luke; one is cynical, the other is not.  Look at just about every comedy duo.

In The Way of Kings, there’s a character named Shallan who prides herself on being witty.  From page 65 (Mass market paperback edition):

That had established in her what  her nurses had referred to as an “insolent streak.”  And the sailors were even more appreciative of a witty comment than her brothers had been.

“Well,” Shallan said … “I was just thinking this: You say that my beauty coaxed the winds to deliver us to Kharbranth with haste.  But wouldn’t that imply that on other trips, my lack of beauty was to blame for us arriving late?”

“Well . . . er . . .”

“So in reality,” Shallan said, “you’re telling me I’m beautiful precisely one-sixth of the time.”

“Nonsense!  Young miss, you’re like a morning sunrise you are!”

“Like a sunrise?  By that you mean entirely too crimson”—she pulled at her long red hair—“and prone to making men grouchy when they see me?”

He laughed, and several of the sailors nearby joined in.

I’m not sure exactly what Sanderson was going for, but, to me, this certainly isn’t witty.  Still, the scene could be funny if, instead of laughing, the sailors don’t get it or don’t think she’s funny.  That way, even if I don’t think her words are all that clever, I’d still be laughing at the situation.  And I wouldn’t say anything about Shallan thinking of herself as witty; I would let her dialog speak for itself.

One final critique: In the world of The Way of the Kings, women read and write, while men don’t.  While this may be an interesting worldbuilding twist, it makes no sense to me.  Reading and writing are very powerful communication tools; I have trouble relating to any male character who cannot recognize that and wouldn’t want that power for himself.  If anything, it would be the other way around, with men reading and writing and women being forbidden from the task.  Or with higher nobles and royalty learning how to read and write while forbidding the lower classes from doing so.  Not that that would be good, but it would certainly be more realistic.  Men want power, knowledge is power, therefore men will want access to knowledge.

Some praise: What I enjoyed most about the novel was the spiritual theme.  As a character says on page 1037:

“Life before death,” Teft said, wagging a finger at Kaladin.  “The Radiant seeks to defend life, always.  He never kills unnecessarily, and never risks his own life for frivolous reasons.  Living is harder than dying.  The Radiant’s duty is to live.

“Strength before weakness.  All men are weak at some time in their lives.  The Radiant protects those who are weak, and uses his strength for others.  Strength does not make one capable of rule; it makes one capable of service.”

Teft picked up spheres, putting them in his pouch.  He held the last one for a second, then tucked it away too.  “Journey before destination.  There are always several ways to achieve a goal.  Failure is preferable to winning through unjust means.  Protecting ten innocents is not worth killing one.  In the end, all men die.  How you lived will be far more important to the Almighty than what you accomplished.”

Very religious, and certainly Christian.  The book never gets preachy and never tries to knock you over the head with these themes.  I think the above quote is as direct as it gets in terms of dialog.  The danger in being too direct with such themes is that they can easily come across as fake, like a beautifully-wrapped Christmas present with nothing inside.  They are better communicated through story itself.  And Sanderson masterfully fits these themes into the characters’ decisions and the overall plot of the book.  So when characters make big decisions at the end of the novel, they feel dramatically powerful.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, and I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel.

The Gate Thief coming soon


Link: The Gate Thief (Mither Mages)

I didn’t realize this book would be coming out next week!  It’s the sequel to The Lost Gate (Mither Mages) which I read back in 2011 and very much enjoyed.  It mixes our modern world with a bit of fantasy, including the creation of portals to another world influenced by Norse mythology.  (A bit like the film Thor… but much better.)  I’ll probably wait until this sequel comes out in paperback before getting my hands on it, as my to-read list is long enough (I still haven’t even read Speaker for the Dead), but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how this story continues.

Shield of Sea and Space cover


Author Erin Hoffman recently unveiled the cover art for her upcoming novel, Shield of Sea and Space which is the final book in The Chaos Knight trilogy.  I bought the first book in the trilogy last year and still haven’t read it; it’s on my long to-read list, and I am a sad slow reader.  Still, I wanted to post this because of the beautiful cover art.  I love the dynamic vivid colors, the flow of the flames in the firebird, the clouds of nebulas in the background, how the architecture of the columns frame the edges of sky.  It’s just wonderfully dynamic and full of life.

Hoffman writes:

It is, of course, by the marvelous Dehong He, upon whom I can never seem to shower enough praise. If you can believe it, the Chaos Knight is the first book cover series he’s done, and each volume has been more stunning than the last. When this one trickled out via a Pyr catalog earlier this year … it was amazing to see book bloggers pick it out to gawk over the art.

I suppose I’m joining in the gawking.  I’ll definitely be looking for this in the bookstore to complete my trilogy, though who knows how long it will take me to get around to reading them.